Last weekend, on 11 February, Henry Talbot would have celebrated his 218th birthday.  And we shouldn’t forget that he shares that birthday not only with Thomas Edison
but also the consummate  experimenter, Mark Osterman,
who fell somewhat short of Talbot’s number.

Henry Talbot had an uneasy relationship with capitalism, being ensnared between an 18th c concept of a gentleman and the emerging 19th c precepts of exploitation of invention and initiative.  He was soon to become an unwitting backer of Nicolaas Henneman’s Talbotype establishment in the town of Reading, feeling a genuine obligation to assist his former servant all the while chaffing under the increasing expenses and frustrations. But the summer before the Reading Establishment opened, Talbot ventured onto French soil in order not only to photograph for the upcoming The Pencil of Nature, but also with an idea of establishing an école normale de photographie. The path to this was laid by Talbot’s close friend, Amélina Petit de Billier (1798-1876),originally governess to Talbot’s half-sisters and later to his own children.  She became a confidant of the Talbot family and next to Lady Elisabeth the closest person that Talbot had as a muse (after Amélina’s death, her bequest paid for the first central heating in Lacock Abbey).  In late 1842 Talbot enlisted her aid in penetrating her native France.  In Paris at the time,  Amélina  had been in contact with Dr. Karl Richard Lepsius (1810–1884), the German Egyptologist who was intrigued by calotypy. Talbot was facing counterfeits coming from France and decided that patent protection would be a better route to take than establishing a school.  He mused to Amélina that “perhaps a company of artists would like to buy it…and even publish beautiful photographic works on architecture, on antiques, &c.”  Talbot prophetically observed that “the Capitalists, in Paris as elsewhere, have so little knowledge of such things, that they could not grasp their value.”


In the course of this, Talbot was introduced to Hughes Antoine Joseph Eugéne Maret (1806-1889), better known as the Marquis de Bassano, the second son of the Duc de Bassano, a close aid to Napoleon.  Working through attorneys on both sides of the Channel, they jointly took out a French patent for the calotype on 26 June 1843.


Curiously, Henry Talbot referred to what they established as the Société Calotypique whereas Bassano preferred Société Calotype, firmly establishing his case through the signature on the mounts of its prints,  Ste  C.pe. I suppose Talbot wanted to maintain the purity of the language, whereas Bassano must have thought there was an appeal in the foreign term.

Most of the known examples wound up at Lacock Abbey.  Talbot sent one to his friend Sir David Brewster, who himself did very little camera work but enjoyed copying other people’s prints while enthusiastically promoting the invention.  Other surviving prints and negatives indicate a good deal of experimentation.


We have precious little documentation about the photographs taken in France.  Sometimes Talbot’s travel diaries or Henneman’s expense accounts can establish the dates of certain photographs, and sometimes Talbot helpfully inscribed the negatives with a definite date.


There are other productions that bear all the hallmarks of the Société Calotype but are not so marked. Do they represent some further stage of the collaboration, or Bassano working on his own, or the work of other parties we have yet to identify?

A workshop was set up in the Place du Carrousel and Talbot initially led the instruction.  Nicolaas Henneman (strangely called ‘Mr Nichols’) stayed on for several weeks to continue the teaching. Some negatives made their way back to Lacock Abbey, labelled in an unfamiliar hand, perhaps that of Bassano, perhaps that of another pupil.


There were many negatives in the Lacock Abbey collection so different in style that it is clear that they came to Talbot from other photographers.  One example is the series of staged views of a plaster copy of the Giustiniani Minerva, a famous 17th c find, later identified as Athena.  The draping of the background suggests pretensions towards a formal studio and stand in marked contrast to Talbot’s own backdrops, often tablecloths from the Abbey  or even his topcoat. There are no inscriptions or other markings on any of several variant negatives and one wonders if these were indoor practice attempts by Bassano, possibly working under the tutelage of Henneman or even Henry Talbot himself?

Like so many of Talbot’s business ventures, this one soon faltered. Both Amélina and Talbot’s half-sister Horatia, fluent in French, attempted to negotiate with Bassano, who had begun to talk of raising funds through selling subscriptions.  But ultimately he proved to be a knave.  Nearing the end of 1843, Amélina glumly reported to Talbot about her meeting with Bassano: “I confess that I cannot conserve any legitimate hope, seeing into which hands this beautiful and ill fated invention has fallen!”  The Marquis abandoned the photographic project and the Société Calotype and returned to an earlier capitalist venture, attempting to exploit his iron mines in Algeria by building the first blast furnace in Algeria in 1846.  It failed within a few years but he never lost the influence of his royal connections and went on to other ventures.  The calotype in France had become an orphan, but certainly not without its influence, for later in the 1840s and on into the 1850s French photographers embraced and excelled at paper negatives.  Some of them even remembered who had invented the art.


This is the most skeletal of stories and much basic research work needs to be done on the Marquis and the introduction of the calotype into France. Please let me know if I can assist in any way in someone further developing this saga.

Larry J Schaaf


• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at larry.schaaf@bodleian.ox.ac.uk  • The standard reference on Bassano remains Nancy Keeler’s “Inventors and Entrepreneurs,” History of Photography, v. 26 no. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 26-33.  In this essay, Keeler examines Talbot’s difficult relationship with capitalists, comparing the Société Calotype with Nicolaas Henneman’s calotype establishment at Reading.  • Marquis de Bassano, Portail Latéral de Notre Dame, salted paper print from a calotype negative, 1843 (on paper watermarked “J Whatman Turkey Mill 1837” and inscribed in ink on paper mount: “Portail latéral de N.D.” and “S Cpe”.  Courtesy of Hans P Kraus, Jr; Schaaf 4278. •  “Retrosession de Brevet  d’invention par Mr de Bassano à Mr Talbot,” Archives nationales, Paris. • Sir David Brewster, laterally reversed copy of Marquis de Bassano, Portail Latéral de Notre Dame, salted paper print from a calotype negative, 1843. J Paul Getty Museum, 84.XZ.574.34; Schaaf 3496.  Copy by WHFT? British Library, London; Schaaf 3497.  •  WHFT, Amboise,  calotype negative, 18 June 1843, National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-2434; Schaaf 2740.   • Attributed to Marquis de Bassano, Fontainbleu (cour ovale), salted paper print from a calotype negative, 1843, courtesy of Sotheby’s, Paris.  •  Attributed to Marquis de Bassano, Place de la Concorde, calotype negative, 2 July 1843, NSMeM, Bradford, 1937-2437; Schaaf 3697.   • Attributed to Marquis de Bassano, possibly with Nicolaas Henneman and/or WHFT, Bust of Minerva, calotype negative, summer 1843?, NSMeM, Bradford, 1937-2736; Schaaf 174.